[John Marin] … gives us … the quickened sense of our intense modern life …he is frankly experimenting on the frontiers of visual consciousness…. he is an impressive master of space and light, and of the dynamics of color. …New York is sensed as a world rocking with the throb of energy.
When John Marin returned from five years abroad in 1911, New York City had been dramatically transformed, and the city’s energy and its new, soaring skyscrapers captivated the artist. Marin came into New York frequently, seeing the city each time with a fresh eye that heightened the intensity of his response to the urban scene. His early depictions of city subjects focused on newly built skyscrapers and other landmarks, but subsequently, he took a broader view, capitalizing on the electric atmosphere created by the hectic activity of the city streets and the visual force of densely packed skyscrapers. In Bryant Square, angular planes thrust inward from the sides of the composition, evoking a sense that the towering structures are jostling against each other, vying for prominence. Marin himself described them as “buildings rearing up from the sidewalk.” Arrayed across the lower part of the image are faceted planes suggesting smaller buildings. In the center is a loosely brushed statue on a pedestal and a few sketchy figures walking across an expanse, the square of the title, actually an urban park. Bryant Park, in mid-town Manhattan, is located behind the New York Public Library, the city’s first public library, which was completed in 1911 and considered one of the city’s architectural gems. Marin alludes to this classical structure and nearby Beaux-Arts buildings in details such as the horizontal row of windows at lower left and the arcaded tier at the upper right, playing off horizontal against vertical, classical against modern.
Although Marin is well known for his watercolors, from 1928 to 1938 he worked exclusively in oil, works that are acclaimed for their rich and varied handling of paint. The surface of Bryant Square shows flat, thinly painted sections, almost transparent, as well as elements that are thickly painted, mainly in the lower sections of the composition. His lines are equally varied; long black strokes define the major blocks within the image, while short zigzags and swift angular strokes suggest motion and the city’s quick pace. The calligraphic quality of Marin’s lines has been noted, and the artist is known to have admired the calligraphy of Eastern cultures, translating it into his own kind of shorthand. Through his handling of line, Marin creates sequences of movement that lead the eye across the image and into the canyon of skyscrapers, expressing the excitement and momentum of the streets of New York.